Paycheck Chronicles

From The Mailbag: Ex-Spouses and Debt


Divorce is a complicated thing, for many reasons. And the effects can linger for a long time if not managed carefully.

Dear Kate,

I was divorced about five years ago. In my divorce decree, I took some of our joint debt and my ex-husband took some of our joint debt. I just tried to buy a new car and Navy Federal says that I have a huge credit card balance with them. This is one of the cards that my ex-husband was supposed to pay - it says so in our divorce papers. I explained this to Navy Federal and they said that they couldn't take me off the credit card account. What do I do?


Oh, dear. This is a mess.

Dear Tisha,

I am so sorry that you are dealing with this. I encourage you to get a lawyer, because you may need it. If you can't possibly afford legal representation (though I think you can't afford to NOT have legal representation,) you may be able to file a motion yourself. State laws may vary, but generally it is something like a motion for contempt, meaning that your ex-husband is in contempt (not following) the court order that is your divorce decree.

Unfortunately, this doesn't help you with Navy Federal. Unfortunately, your divorce decree doesn't mean that you're not liable for the debt. If this is a credit account that you both signed to open, and you are both jointly liable for it, the bank does not have to take you off the loan just because your divorce says so.

Furthermore, Navy Federal isn't likely to voluntarily take you off of the debt - why would they? At this point, you may be more likely to pay the debt than your ex-husband, and it would be a disservice to the other members to let you walk away without at least trying to get you to pay.

You have three options here, but one of them is really viable. You could contest the debt, but it seems that Navy Federal believes that it is yours and you haven't said that you disagree.  You could file for bankruptcy, but that's not a great option in the big picture. Lastly, you could just pay the debt. While that may seem like a terrible thing to have to do, it is probably the best of your choices.

You may be able to pursue your ex-husband for the amount, but if he's not paying it now, I'm not sure how successful you're going to be.

Good luck to you,


To everyone who isn't Tisha, please understand how this works. Dividing debt in a divorce, while common, is a bad idea. If there is debt that can not be paid before the divorce, each partner should take out their own separate personal loan to pay off the joint debt. This will help you truly move on from the marriage with any such surprises.

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